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by Emre Demiralp

About the author:
I am a student in Istanbul American Robert College, and at the same time, one of the administrators of the Computer Labs in Sciences and Letters Faculty of Istanbul Technical University. Overdominating operating system in these labs is LINUX. Interests: PovRay and PostScript, animation, CD design, programming, holography etc.. Linux user since 1994.


Linux as an Educational Tool in Undergraduate Labs



The author describes a first hand account of how Linux is changing tha face of research labs in educational institutions in Turkey. His experiences exemplify the current changes universities all over the world are implementing.



Linux has unexpectedly wide user groups in Turkey, especially in academic media. Amongst these, Istanbul Technical University takes an important role to develop Turkish versions and to contribute to the developments about Linux at different scales. Quite recently, a beta version of the Turkish Linux, Turkuvaz (Turquoise) has been developed in the Electrical Engineering Department of the university. Although it has been developed in this department by the research and teaching assistants the major student group which intensely uses Linux exists in the Science and Letters Faculty. The students are the attendees of the Mathematical Engineering Undergraduate Program which is jointly coordinated by Mathematics Department and Engineering Sciences Department. This article gives some brief information about the Linux usage in this program starting from its very beginning.


Why Linux?

The story begins in 1992 when the modernization of the Mathematical Engineering Undergraduate Program came into the scene.

At those days, Engineering Sciences Department decided to make drastic changes in the software based part of the program. The content of the courses were revised in such a way that the purpose of the lectures became not to give the knowledge directly but to teach how the knowledge can be accessed and efficiently used by the students. Therefore teaching, especially in the computer oriented courses, were shifted to be in a very dynamical structure such that the lecturers could be able to easily revise the contents according to the daily necessities. This was very important to follow quick and sharp changes in the computer technology and informatics.

Before proceeding, I have to briefly mention about what the phrase "Mathematical Engineering" means in Turkey. It is an interdisciplinary profession such that the individuals who are mathematical engineers, can establish technical dialogues with any kind of engineer. Modelling of the interdisciplinary problems, the creation or selection (or both) of the appropriate algorithms to solve the resulted mathematical problems and finally the employment of the computer as an efficient tool are the major capabilities of those persons. They are software engineers with a strong mathematical background. This definition implies the importance of the computer usage in this program.

In 1991, the computer facilities which were devoted to the undergraduate students were almost nothing. There was an IBM main frame but it was only for the Faculty Staff. Students could use only eleven 8086 PCs. Due to virus problems the management of the computer labs was a nightmare. The virus, itself alone, may not be considered as a big problem but the employment of the machines by many people made the problem worse. There was, almost only one solution: to format the machines whenever it was necessary. This situation urged the administrators to seek more efficient solutions at software level since the tight budget conditions did not permit the improvement of the hardware.

In 1992, University bought a SUN IPX workstation which brought the UNIX operating system into the labs. Soon after this purchase the Dean of the Faculty was able to buy fifteen 386 PC's. Having the virus and administration problems in mind, administrators started to seek more efficient solutions. OS/2 was the first attempt. However, due to the lack of sufficient knowledge and experience, the system in the labs could stand only one week and students gained the victory over the system! It was collapsed. Fortunately, the chairman of the labs heard about a new operating system, Linux, from BITNET. The adress had been found and the software had been ordered. It was Yggdrasil LINUX. Of course, the purchase of this software was not the complete remedy. On the contrary, it was the beginning of the road which is full of problems. Nevertheless, the software was free and there was a lot of information on INTERNET. Everybody was aware of the problems and the length of the way to the happy end. However, its rapidly developing structure, the existence of the enthusiastic people dealing with it, and no payment reality led to the decision: Linux had been chosen as the major operating system of the labs.


Consultant Students

The first year passed to gain experience about the operating system at staff level and it was noticed that the administration of the labs was not an easy job. It was time consuming and it was almost impossible to serve with a few administrators to hundreds of students who had met the operating system perhaps for the first time in their lives. One year later the purchase of new 386s and 486s gave more flexibility to the labs but also increased the volume to be dealt with. Since the hire of professionals for maintainance was quite expensive for the limited budget of the faculty, the use of the students as administrators seemed to be good idea. They would serve for maintainance and learn more than they can do in their usual undergraduate program. They were called "Student Consultants" and were allowed to do almost anything with the computers at software and hardware levels though the second is more limited because of the needs of more sophisticated devices for rigorous maintainance (nevertheless they could diagnose the failures of the hardware and might propose the replacements). The system worked. First X Window was operated then the TeX tools and PostScript started to be widely used. These were followed by gcc and other programming languages like, Pascal, Fortran, Mathematica, Scilab, Rlab, etc.. Later the network was created and all servers for this purpose were installed.

Today, there are about hundred student consultants to maintain the system. Their mission is not to only maintain the system but to find, adopt and construct new softwares. They spend their spare times to increase their knowledge and practice which will lead them to an extra certificate when they graduate. The student consultants take duties in nine different units:



Today, after new computer purchases, faculty labs have improved. System has 70 Pentium 166 machines, 55 of which are Linux boxes. The maintainence is provided by the student consultant system I told above. System serves for approximately 500 student 24 hours per day and the record without any collapse is 90 days. System uses NFS and NIS and quota and also governs NT subnet. It is a good experience in the LINUX history. Labs annually add at least 50 educated and trained persons to the Turkish Computer and Software Community. And as a final statement we can say that all students who started from scratch or switched from another operating system never thought of leaving Linux. They enjoy to use Linux and Turkish Linux Community enlarges every day by new participants. Here are some examples of animated gif files created by our Graphics and Animation Unit.

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2002-10-20, generated by lfparser version 2.32